Frustration in Math

math skills parenting for success Oct 27, 2022

“Frustration is not a sign you are not learning, but ease is.”  ---  David Epstein 

This quote always stings a bit.  My mommy heart doesn’t want to see my child struggle.  I am working on getting more comfortable with it because truly, so much of life involves some struggle.  I want my child to be prepared with the skills to work through frustration and struggle and find their way to success.  

The quote comes from the 2019 book Range, by David Epstein.  Chapter 4 is almost exclusively about learning math.  In this chapter Epstein explores recent research studies that give us information about how students learn best and how to set up environments for optimum learning.   

The findings go against our parenting instincts.  It is easy to see why some parents are uncomfortable with the way math is being taught today.  We want our children to be successful and it is easy to agree that teaching based on the latest science makes sense, but it is hard to see our children struggle, take time to learn concepts and be frustrated. However, the research has shown that those three things lead to the deepest learning.  

Build Lasting Knowledge

“Progress should just not happen too quickly...when it does it will ‘produce misleadingly high levels of immediate mastery that will not survive the passage of substantial periods of time.’”  ------  David Epstein

I was just working with a student recently.  She told me, “My teacher was explaining how to do long division.  I didn’t understand a single thing she was saying.  It didn’t make any sense!”  While this student may eventually memorize the steps and be able to give a correct answer, her understanding of the concept of division will not be developed through this memorization.  It would be better for her to explore different division models, building understanding as she goes.  Even if the process takes time, the understanding will be deeper and more lasting. 

Math Practice #1

In fact, the ability to sit with a problem and persevere is named as one of the Standards for Mathematical Practice.  These standards are habits of mind that children need in order to be effective mathematicians.  

 MP 1 “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.”  

Sometimes, even if a child is good at calculations, they are uncomfortable with not seeing an answer right away.  They have trouble persevering. I have been told by students that certain problems are “impossible” or that “they must have written this wrong.”  There are many math problems, however, that are complicated.  Following a path to a solution takes time.  It means that one is engaged in deep thought about the question, not that one is weak at math.  

I believe that children fear if they cannot solve a problem right away they will be seen as unskilled.  We need to encourage our children to be comfortable sitting with a problem and accept that this is sometimes part of the process.  We also need to work to dismantle the idea that those who are best at math are the fastest. 

If your child is struggling or frustrated, it does not necessarily mean the teacher is doing a bad job.  In fact, it might mean that they are doing a great job supporting your child in practicing perseverance.  Ask questions.  Learn more about what is going on in class.  Learn more about what is going on for your child.   

Build Perseverance at Home

At home you can engage in activities that build perseverance.  

• Take a long hike or bike ride.  Go a little further than you might otherwise.  

• Play a board game together.  Encourage your child to stick with it and play again even if they lose.

• Choose a family challenge – 52 hikes in a year, reading all the books in a series, baking a recipe from each of the 50 states, etc.  Stick with it until the challenge is complete.

• Make meringue together.  It tastes so good but often takes me a few tries until I get it right. 

• Learn a new language or a new instrument together.  Recognize how learning new skills takes time.

The goal is to ask children to engage in struggle, persevere, accept slow and deliberate progress, and sometimes experience frustration.  We can keep the end goal in mind and know that this is journey that will take our children to deep conceptual understanding.  When we change our attitudes about what constitutes valuable math tasks we will be better able to support our children in learning math in a way that is aligned with brain research.  

Problem Solving and Perseverance

For more information about how problem solving can lead to better perseverance you can also see this blog post